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Three key battles for Champions League Final

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Saturday brings Real Madrid’s journey toward a third-straight UEFA Champions League title to a close, with just Liverpool standing in the way.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The Reds attack promises danger and entertainment, while Zinedine Zidane’s personnel choice may be just as important as his tactical decisions in Kiev.

Van Dijk, Lovren against… Ronaldo and whoever Zidane decides

It’s difficult to highlight the match-up problems for Liverpool’s center backs because Zinedine Zidane has used three different set-ups atop his line-up.

At times, it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Sometimes, Gareth Bale takes Benzema’s spot, and occasionally Ronaldo has been played up top as a center forward.

Believe it or not, that may be the best case scenario for Liverpool, though Ronaldo will undoubtedly roam across the top of the formation. While many think of Ronaldo and visualize his laser shots from distance, he’s quite dangerous in 1v1 aerial battles as well as tight spaces inside the box.

Quite frankly, matches like this highlight why the Reds signed Virgil Van Dijk. And, opinion alert, human bowling ball Benzema and his Juggernaut-esque approach to attacking may be a unique challenge Liverpool has not seen outside of Romelu Lukaku.

Marcelo vs. Mohamed Salah

Marcelo is an unbelievably silky, savvy left back who uses an elite attacking skill set to keep the opposition’s entire right side off kilter.

In some ways he can be partially neutralized by the danger presented by Reds right wing Mo Salah, but Zidane isn’t going to tell Marcelo to camp out in his own end when left center back Sergio Ramos is the next man up to defend, one of the finest players of his generation.

So it’s on Salah to assert himself on the game, something that shouldn’t be a problem after a couple weeks away from match action.

Can Real defend Liverpool on the counter?

We’ve seen Liverpool expose a number of teams on the counter attack, and Real certainly has a handle on how to do the same.

But building on our second key, there’s danger for both sides when Marcelo or Dani Carvajal get up the pitch. When Liverpool regains the ball and attacks at pace, there are big choices to be made.

Say Marcelo is up the pitch. Now Ramos may have to take Salah and leave Roberto Firmino to Raphael Varane. Now Carvajal may be alone with Sadio Mane. It’s not that Carvajal or Marcelo cannot defend, but these are not situations anyone wants in a one-off.

And that’s the key for Liverpool, really. This is a one-off. Over two legs, it’s hard to imagine the Reds as constructed pulling off another heavily-outchanced two-leg win like it did against Manchester City. The answer to this counter question may be what tells the story in Kiev.

Liverpool on late let-off: “You can’t do that in the Champions League”

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Count Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson among those let down by the final 10 minutes of their UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday.

The Reds took a 5-0 lead and conceded goals to Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti to give the visitors hope with two away goals heading back to Italy for the May 2 second leg.

[ RECAP: Liverpool 5-2 Roma ]

“It felt as though we were in full control but we basically gave them two goals, you can’t do that in the Champions League,” Henderson said. “At the same time we played well, we will go there with a three goal advantage.”

Reds center back Virgil Van Dijk was visibly frustrated even when discussing the boss-level effort in building a lead which should be very hard to erase in Rome.

“It was a fantastic evening, lot of good goals,” Van Dijk said. “A lot of passion, frustration, but the last minutes stays in my mind right now. … It can’t happen. Obviously we know Roma have a lot of quality but we need to do better. But we have a 5-2 lead to take with us to Rome. It’s going to be very tough, but we’ll be ready.”

So 3-0 or 4-1 would do it for Roma next week in Italy, but that’s far easier said than done. Liverpool fans won’t be booking too many flights for Ukraine yet, but Jurgen Klopp will be scouting Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on Wednesday with an eye toward Kiev.

Int’l roundup: Depay, Van Dijk lead Holland past Portugal and more

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Only two matches on Monday involved countries heading to Russia this summer, but each fixture featured exciting action.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal received a 3-0 hammering from Holland at the Stade de Genève, behind goals from Memphis Depay, Ryan Babel and Virgil Van Dijk.

[ MORE: MetLife Stadium would host 2026 World Cup if United bid wins ]

The Portuguese fell behind after 11 minutes, when Depay led a brilliant attack for the Dutch. The lead soon doubled just beyond the half-hour mark as Babel’s sliding effort found its way past goalkeeper Anthony Lopes.

Liverpool defender Van Dijk capped off the scoring on the stroke of halftime with a strong strike inside the Portuguese area following a free kick for the Dutch.

The fate of the hosts was sealed in the 61st minute, when defender João Cancelo received his second yellow card in less than 20 minutes, and was sent off.

Meanwhile, Edinson Cavani’s second-half strike helped Uruguay top Wales with a 1-0 victory on the road.

The South American side was outmatched for much of the fixture, with Gareth Bale and Wales looking the more dominant side, but the PSG star found the back of the net four minutes into the second stanza after Cristian Rodríguez picked out the veteran striker — who was positioned close to goal.

Van Dijk named new Netherlands captain

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Virgil Van Dijk has had a pretty decent last three months since moving to Liverpool, and the towering defender earned a new personal achievement on Thursday.

Van Dijk was named the newest captain of the Netherlands National Team, where he’ll play under former manager Ronald Koeman. Van Dijk’s first game as captain will be against the nation where he currently plies his trade, England, on Friday.

“I am very happy with it, it is a great honor to be the captain of your country,” van Dijk said at a pre-match press conference Thursday. “Everyone knows that Koeman gave me the chance at Southampton, I am very grateful to him. This is very special.”

Van Dijk’s commanding presence in the Liverpool backline and previous stops at Southampton and Celtic make him an obvious choice for captain, taking the place of the now-retired Arjen Robben. At just 26-years old, van Dijk could carry the armband for a half dozen years if he keeps up his strong form.

Van Dijk reacts to St. Mary’s booing, Southampton plight

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Virgil Van Dijk knows he’s played a role in Southampton’s rough season, and understands the booing of the St. Mary’s faithful.

[ RECAP: Saints 0-2 Liverpool ]

Then again, it’s easy to blow off the boos when your new team is knocking on the door to second place and the club you ditched sits in the relegation zone.

Van Dijk is widely perceived to have engineered his move to Liverpool, but claimed there’s a lot more to the story after the Reds beat Southampton 2-0 on Sunday.

And the defender said the booing, well, it was kinda fun (if “unfair”).

“You just enjoy it. It’s the only thing I think you can do. I think it is a bit unfair because no-one really knows what happened over the summer and the last few months but I just kept my head down and enjoyed it.”

Van Dijk also said he’s “definitely” worried about Southampton’s status as a Premier League club, that he “cares for the club” and has a lot of friends there.

It all sounds a little hollow.